Mobile phones help get world closer universal access to clean water by helping monitor and speed repairs

Making clean drinking water globally accessible is one of the biggest challenges of this century. Yet a new study by Oxford University contends that this goal is achievable if the key elements of good governance and management are adopted.

The problem of providing clean water is most acute in developing countries, particularly in Africa, where creaking infrastructures struggle to keep pace with fast-growing urban populations; in rural areas, millions of water pumps stand unused waiting to be repaired. Despite hitting the Millennium Development Goal for drinking water access in 2012, over 780 million people still do not have safe and reliable drinking water, says the report, resulting in largely preventable health problems that most affect women and children.

Mobile phones help monitor and speed repairs and help with bill payment

The study suggests that a critical factor in all cases is to have a good system for maintaining existing water supplies. Additionally, new information systems were found to be important for improving the way the quality of service was monitored. In West Africa, for instance, a structured crowd sourcing platform is used by water scheme managers to input weekly data via a mobile phone application; in East Africa, a mobile-enabled monitoring system is leading to faster repair times for water pumps.

Late bills are still a huge problem in developing countries, so consequently there is often a failure to recoup the service costs needed to invest in the infrastructure. The study highlights a successful mobile water payment system adopted in one Kenyan city, which was the preferred way of paying bills for 85% of customers who would otherwise often have to queue in water company offices.

Based on nine case studies in Cambodia, India, Kenya, Uganda and Senegal, the authors analysed new data in rural and urban areas to compare what the authors call the under-researched aspects of water security: the institutional side of how water supplies are delivered, their operation and management systems. They examined water payment systems and the quality of service, such as how quickly leaks or pumps were fixed, and whether populations had water on demand or a regularly disrupted service.

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